Tomorrow is Another Day

This is my tribute to my maternal grandmother (Oma), Annemarie Beck Nordstrom, from her funeral on December 28, 2018.

Opa and Oma
Opa and Oma

Born March 10, 1940 in what was then Yugoslavia, Oma’s family was taken to a concentration camp during World War II. Her father Hans was fluent in 24 languages, and served as a linguist in the Civil Service prior to the War. Their family spent 7 years in the camp before being liberated by the Red Cross, well after the War ended.

Oma immigrated to the United States in 1956, and later met my Opa, Nels Nordstrom. Before long, they started a family, and Oma became a US citizen.

She was one of the strongest people I’ve ever known, as well as one of my best friends. 


 

“London Bridge is Down.” This is the phrase that will be broadcast from the United Kingdom, over the BBC, and heard the world over when Queen Elizabeth II passes away. At her current age of 92, her passing will mark a monumental event for every citizen of her Empire, nearly every one of whom has never known a day without her reign.

It’s a comparison I like to make: my Oma and the Queen.

We spent many days together this past summer, surveying the health of her backyard kingdom. Enjoying the warmth and sunlight, we sat together on the back porch; often me reading a yoga book, Oma lounging with her feet up in the special chair I eventually came to refer to as her Throne.

Oma would turn to me and deliver her daily report on the resident tree squirrels as they haggled over birdseed and leapt to avoid Polly and Toodles, our two dogs who stood guard, resolute at the side of their sovereign.

She sometimes commented on her thinning hair, and that all she had left were “5 hair” to cover her head. And so at the height of Summer, as the Sun beamed down on us, I suggested she start a collection of elegant, wide-brimmed hats to protect her scalp and face from the Sun’s amber waves. A collection, of course, modeled after the Queen’s.

Fun with OmaIn many ways, my relationship with Oma was a prime example of the Continuity of Life: that due to circumstance, fortune, choice, age, and our complimentary stages of life, we were often exactly what and whom the other one needed.

Whether it was a partner for family game night, someone to gossip with over brunch, or a friend to exchange a grin and a wink with over our own acknowledged foibles, Oma and I were confederates from beginning to end.

When I was young she took me to Panda Express so that I could have chow mein, and when she was old I took her to Pizza Ranch so that she could have bread. When I was young I’d make us watch Disney’s Robinhood, and when she was old she’d make us watch Swamp People. When I was young, she saw me start to walk and of course fall, and when she was old I saw her stop walking and sometimes fall.

It’s one of the things that I value most: that we were there to see and to witness, for our good days and the bad.

Oma and I shared many inside jokes, including that she’d outlived yet another person each time we’d hear of a celebrity’s passing. The intent wasn’t to disparage the celebrity, or to revel in their passing. Instead, the humor was in pointing out just how resilient (and down right hard to kill) she was. Nothing could take down my Oma.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in his book Man’s Search For Meaning that a person can get used to almost anything, that nearly any degree of suffering can come to feel normal. He wrote these words in reference to his experience as a Jewish prisoner during WWII, and to a type of suffering Oma had also learned a bit about early in life.

But I think the same can be said–that it can become normal–about magnificent feats of service and handiwork done for others.

Oma’s life was so full of service, that to me, it just felt normal. I was awakened many times–almost daily–this past year by the sound of her sewing machine motoring away in the work room above my head. It was the sound of business as usual: that regardless of how stiff her back, swollen her feet, sore her fingers, short her breath, or sour her mood, Oma was still hard at work, in the service of others.

The thousands of hours spent creating clothes, Halloween costumes, drapes and curtains, wedding quilts, Christmas sweaters, winter blankets, doilies, beanies for pre-mature babies, place mats, cross-stitch…always for others.

Yet despite her great works, a handful of times she mentioned having little to show for herself after a lifetime. While the heirs of some made time to squabble over worldly possessions left behind by their parents and grandparents, Oma noted to me—in jest and with a sly smile—that she had little to leave behind for my sister and I to fight over. No royal artifacts, no family estate, no Crown Jewels.

“Well you’d better get to work,” I replied. “There’s still time!”

But she wasn’t wrong. Whether by hook or by crook, most of us spend day after day of our adult lives working to build up our own personal wealth. But not Oma. My entire life, Oma spent her days enriching the lives of others, not by crook, but by crochet hook.

Many of us here have received at least one, if not a handful of Oma’s great masterworks over our lives. Even Dove, my new puppy, is the beneficiary of Oma’s love and the recipient of her comfort, through a blanket she finished sewing just days before she passed.

A friend of mine once commented on a blanket Oma had crocheted entirely by hand, remarking that the spacing and evenness of the yarn was so phenomenal, that the blanket itself was like a piece of fine jewelry. Until then, I don’t think I’d ever taken the time to truly appreciate the flawless creation my Oma had brought into existence, one flick of the wrist at a time.

But my friend was right. The next time I saw Oma, I told her what an amazing job she’d done on this blanket in particular. She just clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth and waved away the compliment. “You can have it,” she said.

Who knows how many blankets of equal caliber Oma had produced by that time? Certainly, they were without number. And just like that, at the dictate of the Queen, the jewel was mine. For her, it was perfectly normal. Both the creative act and the decision to give without reservation were something she’d become accustomed to.

This is what she leaves us. A legacy of love and service, and a generosity with time and talent. Nothing too fabulous, or extravagant as an Empire, but priceless just the same.

Oma had many phrases that as a family we came to associate with her. Maxims that she’d repeat time and time again. One that has stuck with me for my entire life is that “Tomorrow is another day.”

When I was a young boy and I didn’t want to go to sleep because there were video games to play and books to read, she would come in and tell me, “Tomorrow is another day.” And when I was a young man growing up gay in the Mormon church, and I didn’t want to wake up in the morning, I would tell myself, “Tomorrow is another day.”

Thank you all for being here today. I know we all have had a special relationship or friendship with Oma, and we all have something that she’s left with us and that we can take with us. Tomorrow is another day.

With Oma in Loveland

The Evolution of My Yoga Practice

NamasteTo Practice is to Evolve

When I started on this path four years ago, I thought of Yoga much like going to the gym or casually playing a sport. It was a great workout that helped me burn calories and improve my overall health while also increasing my confidence as I became more comfortable in my own skin. But as I’ve learned more about Yoga and come to know that the physical postures are only one part of a more comprehensive way of living, I developed a practice with the goal of fully integrating what are known as the 8 Limbs of Yoga.

I’m still not an expert, and I learn more each day. As my understanding and engagement with Yoga progresses, it’s easier to open up and share my practice with the world without fear of judgment or correction. I believe the deep truths of Yoga are free to all honest seekers and practitioners, whether they be recognized teachers, or life-long students. No one has a monopoly on these truths. My knowledge of Yoga isn’t complete (it never will be), and I invite those who have come to a different understanding to share their experiences with me in a spirit consistent with the first two yogic limbs of Yama and Niyama.

Beginning with Bikram

I practiced the 26 postures (Asana) and 2 breathing exercises (Pranayama) of Bikram Yoga for three years before I started to see this iconic system as a true gateway into the integration of the other yogic principles. As I incorporated self-study into my Sadhana, or personal spiritual practice, I realized that for years I was merely going through the motions of the 26×2, oblivious to the transformation that was taking place internally.

After delving into the teachings of other yogis, both Indian and American, I began a home practice outside of the studio that included elements of Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow. As my world was opened to dozens more postures and sequences, I developed an appreciation for the contrasting elements of serene stillness found in the Bikram series and the flowing grace that’s emblematic of the Mysore styles.

Duality, not Dichotomy

I’ve found that stillness opens the door for concentration and meditation through focused observation of the body. The focus starts from within, is projected forward, and is magnified by the cosmic mirror as it’s reflected back and absorbed once more by the body. The focused eye-gaze is known in Yoga by the Sanskrit word drishti.

During periods of flow, when the eyes are continually redirected and the head is repositioned, it can be difficult to focus in the same manner. Instead, these periods of movement can be used to hone mental acuity and awareness. The focus again starts within, but rather than being projected outward, it should be channeled inward, by directing it further through the recess of one’s mind.

Even as a self-identified atheist and secular person, I’ve found the inevitable result of combining stillness with flow to be the complete alignment of the body, mind, and spirit. When it’s experienced, there’s no contradiction: only a clarity of understanding that gives rise to a quiet peace and radiant joy. To me, that’s the beauty of Yoga.

Multiple Intelligences: Biological and Artificial

The original draft of this post was written on May 26, 2013 as part of my unpublished (and as of yet unfinished) work, The New Era of Tech: How Emergent Virtual Constructs are Reshaping the World. As our civilization finds itself today on the precipice of fully embracing a world of algorithms, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and neural engines, I find now to be a more appropriate time to publicly share this and other works I’ve previously held as works in progress. I ask that the casual reader forgive the formality with which I’ve chosen to write, as this is the voice and ethos of my training in the discipline of Philosophy.

These articles, and my thesis more broadly, are primarily grounded in the dialectic principles of Hegel, as observed through a specific understanding of historical progression. It’s my hope that as I continue to write and publish, it will become evident how virtual constructs in their many forms pull us ever closer to the inevitable moment of Singularity, perhaps best articulated by Ray Kurzweil, and to illustrate the myriad other ways in which EVCs have fundamentally changed our world for good.

It’s difficult to identify one achievement alone for which Kurzweil is best known, but his work expounding upon the Law of Accelerating Returns (LOAR) shines bright among many. Although Kurzweil may be credited with progressing one of the most formal and well-known articulations of the LOAR in his book The Singularity is Near, he’s not the first to make note of the increasing pace and significance of technological development that underlie the law itself. As he acknowledges in his 2012 book How to Create a Mind:

“A year after his [John von Neumann’s] death in 1957, fellow mathematician Stan Ulam quoted him as having said in the early 1950s that ‘the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.’ This is the first known use of the word singularity in the context of human technological history” (194).

Understanding our Biology in Context with Technology

How to Create a MindOn April 2, 2013, just 5 months after Kurzweil published How to Create a Mind, President Barack Obama announced the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative: a government-funded project aimed at mapping the brain. The BRAIN initiative is precisely the sort of project Kurzweil argues is needed so as to further unlock the mysteries of the human brain, and more specifically the biological neocortex.

Using the neocortex as a basis first for understanding human intelligence and creativity, then as a model for replicating that intelligence primarily through the utilization of cloud-based computational processing power, Kurzweil believes we will soon augment human biology to such an extent as to achieve transcendent capabilities.

Evidence presented by early mathematicians and computer scientists (von Neumann, Moore, Turing, et al.) support the theory that the human brain processes information in ways similar to primitive computation machines, but as technology has advanced it has become clear that there are several key differences between biological human intelligence and technological computational power. For example, increases in processing capabilities and memory capacity within super computers has resulted in vast improvements to the overall computational power of machines, making them capable of tasks far beyond the scope of a human brain.

It has been posited by other modern thinkers such as Kevin Kelly that there are multiple and different types of intelligence, and that the best kind may in fact be the combination of human intelligence with super computer brain power. Today’s AI excels at automating the duties of household appliances, suggesting solutions to scheduling conflicts among groups, and intelligently routing us around traffic accidents on our daily commute, but it doesn’t do well at nurturing children the way human parents can, or catalyzing creativity and innovation in students the way an engaging teacher can. When we combine these intelligences together, we see great advances in efficiency, safety, creativity, and happiness in the home and in schools.

The growing chasm of capability between machine and human intelligence suggests that the creation of new and uniquely significant human knowledge without the aid of AI has come increasingly close to its limit. This isn’t to say that we’re approaching a point of absolute omniscience in which we will know all there is to know. This is only to say that very soon, the primary task of the creative human mind will be to develop insight into that which is already known: to make meaning from knowledge already made by humans and information already indexed by machines, through the exploration and expression of human experience.

Qualia and Consciousness

Not only does computational processing differ from human intelligence in scope by virtue of its capacity for infinite expansion, but it differs in method as well. As Kurzweil states, “There is considerable plasticity in the brain, which enables us to learn. But there is far greater plasticity in a computer, which can completely restructure its methods by changing its software. Thus, in that respect, a computer will be able to emulate a brain, but the converse is not the case” (193). Personally, I would append but one word to this claim: yet.

The human brain has no formal or automatic method for weeding out inconsistencies in thought or contradictions of belief. This can result in a range of undesired phenomena, from irrational behavior to cognitive dissonance. Although humans are capable of what has been called “critical thinking,” Kurzweil cites this faculty only as a “weak mechanism,” and a skill “not practiced nearly as often as it should be.” For as he writes in Chapter 8 of How to Create a Mind, “In a software-based neocortex, we can build in a process that reveals inconsistencies for further review” (197). In other words, computer scientists can integrate superior methods of data processing and error-correction into the foundations of consciousness for artificially intelligent machines.

With the potential for superior error-correction built into AI, the question then arises whether or not an artificially intelligent machine can/will eventually replicate the workings of a biological human brain, and to what extent such a creation will resemble true human intelligence.

This is question can very likely can be answered via scientific inquiry: through experimentation and observation, along with proper interpretation and wise application of the results derived from said inquiry. This question asks us to shift from the brain as biological substance, to the mind and consciousness as Philosophical concepts.

Kurzweil continues, “Consciousness, and the closely related question of qualia are a fundamental, perhaps the ultimate, philosophical question” and “I maintain that these questions can never be fully resolved through science. In other words, there are no falsifiable experiments that we can contemplate that would resolve them, not without making philosophical assumptions” (205).

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has this to say on the topic of qualia:

Philosophers often use the term ‘qualia’ (singular ‘quale’) to refer to the introspectively accessible, phenomenal aspects of our mental lives. In this broad sense of the term, it is difficult to deny that there are qualia. Disagreement typically centers on which mental states have qualia, whether qualia are intrinsic qualities of their bearers, and how qualia relate to the physical world both inside and outside the head. The status of qualia is hotly debated in philosophy largely because it is central to a proper understanding of the nature of consciousness. Qualia are at the very heart of the mind-body problem.

Although there are a number of compelling theories that attempt to define the point at which a being is fully endowed with true consciousness, Kurzweil believes that in the end there is a fundamental need for a leap of faith on our part when assessing the (non)consciousness of machines. Whether or not they are in fact conscious, “machines in the future will appear to be conscious and that they will be convincing to biological people when they speak of their qualia” (209). Kurzweil’s leap of faith is that once this convincing occurs, they [machines] “will indeed constitute conscious persons.”

I believe this leap of faith to be quite rational, as it follows from the claim that although not all beings with consciousness are capable of convincing others of their consciousness, that any being capable of convincing others of their conscious is, in fact, conscious.

The key to understanding the thought experiment of machine consciousness is to invest fully in the “convincing” itself. For if we are in fact convinced of a nonbiological, artificially intelligent being’s narrative of self-reflection and description of individual qualia, what difference does it make whether or not a true consciousness lies behind the eyes? Indeed, the bulk of this conclusion may translate to life in general: if you are fully convinced of anything yet act the opposite, where is your integrity? The feminist philosopher belle hooks once said in a lecture I attended that integrity is the congruence of that which we believe, think, and act.

The emergence, identification, and recognition of this consciousness will each undoubtedly stand as epochal moments in the history of what Kurzweil and others term the human-machine civilization. It may sound like the stuff of Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons and Westworld’s Hosts to some, and they would be right to reflect upon the problem as such.

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The Modern Relevance of Yoga Anatomy

Yoga Anatomy Second Edition
Learn more with Yoga Anatomy, by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

It’s important to understand the metaphorical nature of the language used in yoga philosophy and anatomy. It can be easy to let concepts like chakras, prana, etc. obscure the greater truths that they’re used to illustrate, but remember that wisdom from a different time, language, and culture is still wisdom.

The purpose of yoga anatomy isn’t to articulate a 100% scientifically descriptive discourse by appropriating Indian mysticism. Rather, its purpose is to articulate a holistic perspective of the body/mind and its inner workings that can be understood from within the greater context of Yoga.

Acknowledging this distinction allows the truth of both science and yoga to do their jobs without one negating the validity of the other.

Just as understanding the Scientific workings of the body need not diminish one’s awe of Nature, the pre-modern imagery of the Yogic explanation need not be misinterpreted as supernatural justification for natural phenomena.

I’ve found that when it’s not immediately clear to me how a yogic explanation of the body can be scientifically translated, the answer is to practice more asana. Eventually, the truth becomes clear. Indeed, such clarity is part of the power of yoga asana.

For Reference